Make America Think Straight Again

The science of truth vs. lies.

Posted Oct 07, 2020

Scientific American, cover of special issue being reviewed here; used with permission
Scientific American Special issue on misinformation
Source: Scientific American, cover of special issue being reviewed here; used with permission

The other day I was walking through the supermarket checkout stand, when I spotted a “special collector’s edition” of Scientific American. The bolded title was “Truth vs. Lies” and the subtitle declared “It’s never been more important to understand the science of misinformation and how to know what is real.” Below the subtitle were listed five of the featured topics inside:

  • Facebook and fake news are polarizing society.
  • Antiscience thinking.
  • Implicit bias affects our reality.
  • Battling disinformation.
  • The psychology behind conspiracy theories.

My eyes lit up when I saw the term “antiscience thinking”, and I tore the magazine open to discover that among the 26 articles, the editors had reprinted an article entitled “The science of antiscience thinking” – one that I had written with my ASU colleagues Adam Cohen, Steve Neuberg, and Bob Cialdini. 

When the checker asked: “How are you today, sir?” I opened up the magazine and said: “Great, I just picked up this copy of Scientific American and see that my article is in there!” I was immediately embarrassed because rather than asking what the article was about, his silence indicated that he thought this old man, dressed in ragged shorts and a tattered shirt, sporting a wild mop of frizzy hair, and wearing one of those “giant masks,” was a crazy person. 

Well, here’s my excuse for getting so excited that I had to tell the first person I saw. When I was closer to the age of the checker, and had only recently completed several years working in a supermarket to help get through college myself, I made a list of my career goals. The list including publishing papers in several prominent psychology journals (including Psychological Review and American Psychologist, which were then the two most prominent journals in the field). But I didn’t want to talk only to psychologists, I also wanted to write a popular science book or two, incorporating ideas from the new field of sociobiology with research in my own area of social psychology (resulting 25 years later in Sex, Murder and the Meaning Life, 2011, and The Rational Animal, 2013). And I had it on my list to publish articles in two popular science magazines—Scientific American and Psychology Today, the latter then new to the scene. As a young man, I thought all that would be accomplished in a decade or two, but it actually took closer to a half century. 

In academic psychology, when it comes to getting tenure and promotion, articles in Psychological Review count for a lot more than books and articles written for the general public. But when I made up my list, psychologists were still abuzz about George A. Miller’s 1969 APA presidential address, in which he had made the case that we should “give psychology away.” By this, Miller meant that, rather than staying in our laboratories and talking to one another via jargon-filled articles in inaccessible journals, we should contribute to the development of scientifically based solutions to real-world social problems. 

In Scientific American’s issue on “truth vs. lies” there are a number of interesting articles that attempt to address one of the central problems of our time – the rejection of scientific findings in the interest of political ends. Growing up, this is something I associated with the Soviet Union, but sadly, active government suppression of scientific findings is now happening at the highest levels of the American government. 

Of course, the denial of scientific findings is nothing new. In fact, it comes naturally. As we discussed in our article in the special edition, there are three sets of obstacles to objective thinking, and all of us confront those obstacles when we’re trying to process new information. 

One obstacle comes from our reliance on cognitive short-cuts, such as trusting authorities. That short-cut often works: If you want to buy a new computer, ask your neighbor who has a degree in computer science; if you want to know how to treat an illness, ask a physician. But when highly influential politicians actively undercut the credibility of scientific authorities, or force scientists to suppress information, as we have seen in recent years, the authority short-cut doesn’t work. But we’re busy, and there’s a lot of information out there, so we rarely have the time or capacity to examine all the evidence ourselves.  

Another obstacle comes from “confirmation bias” – the powerful tendency to search for support for the things we already believe, and to accept that evidence unquestioningly. We don’t seek out information that disagrees with a conclusion we’ve already made, but if we are forced to look at inconsistent evidence, we are really good at finding flaws that allow us to disregard it. This is part of the reason why, when people listen to political debates, they almost always think that their candidate did better. In the September 29, 2020 presidential debate, despite what many media commentators regarded as by far the worst performance in the history of these debates, 28 percent of viewers thought Donald Trump “won.”  

A third obstacle comes from social pressures. Sometimes our group identities matter more to us than scientific facts. If your closest friends and neighbors agree that humans did not descend from apes, and you are not employed as a biologist, it costs you little to simply accept the local consensus, but you could lose some friends if you were to start digging around and looking at the evidence for evolution by natural selection. Easier for your social life not to think about it.  This helps explain why so many people have resisted the idea of global warming; it is awfully hard to understand the scientific data, but it’s easy to see if people in your political camp will get angry if you bring it up. On the other side, as I discussed in a recent blog, some liberals get mad if you start drawing links between overpopulation and global destruction. And of course, the social pressure problem helps explain why so many people have been actively resisting wearing masks during the Covid epidemic – because some political leaders have made it an issue of identity rather than one to be addressed with scientific evidence. 

In the Scientific American article, we offered a few suggestions for how to overcome these obstacles to clear scientific thinking. These include:

  1. Taking time to evaluate information rather than using short-cuts if the information is consequential.
  2. Considering how you’d have felt if the evidence came out in the opposite direction.
  3. Avoiding fear-mongering if you’re trying to convince a friend or family member who you think isn’t being objective (fear increases people’s tendencies to rigidly stick to their guns). 

The special issue of Scientific American also contains a number of other articles by psychologists addressing various aspects of this critically important issue. An article by cognitive psychologists Merim Bilalic and Peter McLeod explores the Einstellung effect, or the brain’s tendency to stick with familiar partial solutions, even when there is a vastly superior solution in plain sight.  Another article by Keith Payne, Laura Niemi, and John M. Doris talks about “implicit biases” – those automatic stereotypes that influence our judgments about other people (working class people speaking with a Southern accent, or young hombres hablando español, for example). An article by Dan Ariely and Ximena Garcia-Rada discusses their research demonstrating how dishonesty can become contagious

I think that instead of reading today’s headlines describing the latest denials of scientific evidence by our highest leaders, I will read several of these articles, and ponder how we can best “give psychology away” to the next round of leaders. The next administration will hopefully be more open to trying to address the pandemic of disinformation. On that note, it’s worth observing that Scientific American last week violated their 175-year-old rule against endorsing a presidential candidate. I believe that endorsement was driven by the same motivation that led them to publish a special issue on misinformation, deception, and antiscientific thinking. 

References

Kenrick, D.T., Cohen, A.B., Cialdini, R.B., & Neuberg, S.L. (2020).  The science of antiscience thinking. Scientific American, (Special Edition) Truth vs. Lies, 84-89.

Kenrick, D.T. (2011).  Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  New York: Basic Books

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books

Miller, G. A. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American psychologist, 24(12), 1063.